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The Spire of Notre Dame Tumbled Like a Spear Into the Heart of Something Timeless

At a time when intellect and human achievement are under attack, we lost a monument to both.
IMAGE Getty Images
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In 1823, a workman laboring on the roof of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which had stood untouched above the alleged tomb of St. Paul for over 1,400 years, started a fire that destroyed the basilica almost entirely. Over the next 17 years, contributions from the likes of the Viceroy of Egypt and the Russian Tsar enabled the church to rebuild the place. I suspect that's what next when the ashes finally cool on Ile de la Cite and they go about the business of rebuilding Notre-Dame de Paris. After all, it's already happened once; the cathedral was ransacked and vandalized during the French Revolution, but, thanks to Victor Hugo's novel about the hunchbacked bellringer, a restoration project was launched that took 25 years.

It was, of course, a made for television catastrophe. A building almost 900 years old, burning in the Parisian twilight, a spire tumbling to the ground like a flaming spear into the heart of something timeless. Great video. If there only had been cable news when the Colossus of Rhodes came down, or when the Alexandrian Lighthouse tumbled into the sea. And, of course, because this is 2019 and America is out of its mind, the president* provided the comic relief, bellowing into the electric Twitter machine like the guy who clears out the end of a Manhattan saloon.

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When they finally took a moment to respond, the city officials in Paris explained that following the president*'s suggestion probably would cause the entire structure to collapse.

(Not content for the president* to be the biggest uniformed blowhard from NYC on the subject, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League went on Fox News to call the Notre-Dame fire "suspicious," scaring Neil Cavuto half to death.)

It was as much a museum as a place of worship. There was much talk on Monday about how the crown of thorns also may have been destroyed in the fire, especially among credulous anchorfolk who would believe anything. The alleged crown of thorns in question showed up in France in 1238 when the king of Jerusalem gave it to Louis IX. (It previously had been held as collateral for a loan from bankers in Venice.) There is no reason for anyone to believe this is the actual crown of thorns, of course, but apparently it was saved along with a number of other valuable artifacts, so good for all involved.

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The cathedral, of course, was a monumental work of art that contained, and was festooned with, other monumental works of art. It was central to French history, good and bad. Heretics were burned in front of it. The Third Crusade was proclaimed there, as was the Festival of Reason. Henry VI of England was crowned king also of France within it, and so was Napoleon. It also hosted the marriage of Henry III of Navarre to Margaret of Valois. This interfaith wedding—Henry was a Protestant—was the precursor to the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572. It survived Robespierre and Adolph Hitler. Now, it may have fallen to the same kind of industrial accident that brought down the basilica in Rome almost 300 years ago.

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History burns as well as wood does. In 2018, the National Museum of Brazil burned and 200 years of assembled history was lost, including the 11,000-year old skull of an early human. Earlier this month, in Tennessee, the Highlander Center, one of the intellectual seedbeds of the long struggle for African-American civil rights was lost to what probably was arson. These places are not as famous, nor as picturesque, as Notre-Dame, but with intellect and vaulting human achievement under attack in so many places these days, all of them leave a lot of the best of what we are in ashes, falling from an evening sky.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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About The Author
Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce, lead for Esquire Politics US, has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently 'Idiot America.' He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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